November 14, 2014
[My wife’s book club has been reading The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd’s fictionalized biography of of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), who were leaders in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Since Sarah and Nina were Quakers, Ellen asked me to give the group a little background on Friends and equality. This is what I wrote.]
Whenever we think of human equality as an ideal towards which we struggle, we should remember how recent an ideal this is. Prior to about 1600, no one believed in the equality of human beings. (That’s scarcely too strong.) Everyone believed that there were significant differences among people that made them unequal—and should make them unequal. Some of those differences ran along lines of race and gender. Some ran along the lines of inherited status. Any proper organization of society or politics or religion, it was believed, should respect those rightful inequalities.
Quakers were among the first to see things differently. There were other groups who also came to proclaim ideas of equality: Diggers, Levellers and Ranters. Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972) is the best history of the emergence of these radical ideas.
What we know as Quakerism began about 1652 when George Fox, an itinerant preacher and son of a weaver had an epiphany. He had been seeking answers to religious questions and had found none in established churches or ministers. On Pendle Hill he heard a voice that said “There is one, even Jesus Christ, who has come to teach his people himself.” As Fox and others understood that leading, God spoke to us in the present, and would speak to all of us directly: all of us, not just some of us. We had only to still ourselves and listen. From this followed the practice of gathering in worship in stillness, waiting for the Spirit to move one to speak. From this followed also the idea that all were called to ministry.
From its beginnings, women assumed leadership roles among Friends, as they came to call themselves. (“Quaker” was a mocking term, quickly adopted by Friends.) Of course this was controversial. In 1666, Margaret Fell, the most prominent of the earliest Quaker women, wrote Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed by the Scriptures to extoll women taking roles generally taken only by men. In Quakerism’s first century, both in Britain and in the colonies, women are as likely as men to be recorded as ministers (recognized for their gifts of ministry).
Friends were early activists with regard to slavery. In the late 1650s, Fox wrote a letter of caution to other Quakers about slave-holding. The 1688 Germantown (Pa.) Quaker Petition Against Slavery was the first protest against African-American slavery made by a religious body in the English colonies. By the early 18th century, Quaker Yearly Meetings (regional organizations) were instructing their members not to hold slaves. and their pronouncements grow increasingly forceful over the next several decades. John Woolman published his influential Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes in 1754, but several Friends had published anti-slavery tracts well before. When the American colonies gained independence, Quakers petitioned the new federal government to forbid slavery.
As an Abolitionist Movement took shape, Quakers were prominent members, and this included women as well as men. In the 1830s, Quaker women including Lucretia Mott and the Grimke sisters, as well as many others, were involved (though not always recognized as members) in the formation of anti-slavery societies
When the first Women’s Rights Convention was held at Seneca Falls in 1848, Quaker women were prominent in the effort including Lucretia Mott, her sister, Martha Coffin Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock and Jane Hunt. (Wright had been disowned as a Friend for marrying a non-Friend.) They developed their organizing skills in the fight for abolition.
Slavery and the proper role of women were controversial issues within the Society of Friends through the 18th and 19th centuries. Friends were not of one mind: both issues divided monthly and yearly meetings. But abolition of slavery and full equality for women were issues that arose early among Friends and ones about which Friends came to substantial unity well before other religious denominations.
Today, Friends talk about a Testimony of Equality just as they also talk about a Peace Testimony, but formulating ‘Testimonies’ to capture Friends’ beliefs about how we should act in the world is a 20th century approach. Today Friends continue to struggle with equality. The central issues of concern today are rights of indigenous peoples, rights of immigrants, the proper treatment of those convicted of wrong-doing, and equality around LGBTQ matters. Again, Friends are not of one mind on these questions, but there are Friends in leadership in struggles around all of these.
For more on the relation of women in the abolition and women’s rights movements, see Christopher Densmore, Radical Quaker Women and the Early Women’s Rights Movement.